Aquaponics program, brewery pair up to give students life skills

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man harvesting chives from aquaponics
Kirkland Campbell harvests chives for from a media bed Nov. 11 in one of the Growing Together Aquaponics systems, housed in North Country Brewing Company's canning facility, in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — Tucked in the back corner of a warehouse, surrounded by beer kegs stacked to the ceiling, are two tanks of fish and trays of plants sitting under bright lights.

This is the home of the Growing Together Aquaponics Program, in the North Country Brewing Company canning facility. At its core, it’s a pre-employment transition program for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. But it’s grown to be so much more.

For Lucas Chamberlain, one of the program’s participants and employees, it’s a calm, relaxing environment to learn and grow.

“Back at school, it was always chaos,” he said. “This is joy for me.”

For Dale Daugherty, chef at the North Country Brewing Company taproom, it’s a source of fresh, tasty ingredients for his meals. He swears the flavor of the vegetables he gets from the aquaponics program is better than anything he gets in stores or from other purveyors.

“I think it’s the care they put into it,” he said.

Putting down roots

The Growing Together Aquaponics Program sprouted from several other programs at Slippery Rock University meant to help high school and college students with disabilities transition to life and work outside of school.

Part of these programs was vocational training. It’s an essential part of transition programs, said Marena Toth, operations director for the aquaponics program

“Many times students need time to learn, and jobs often don’t want to take that extra time to train people with disabilities,” she said.

Bob Arnhold, a professor in the adaptive physical activity program, heard about aquaponics from a friend. He didn’t know much about how it all worked, with the fish and the plants, but it seemed like a good opportunity for his transition students.

“I don’t have any farm background,” he said. “It was all based on preparing students for a life after school.”

The only problem was, he needed space, about 1,000 square feet of it, to put up an aquaponics system. There was nothing that big available on campus.

On a whim, he approached the owner of North Country Brewing Company, Bob McCafferty, with the idea of hosting the system.

“Before I even finished my first sentence, he was all excited and on board,” Arnhold said. “He said he had room at his canning facility down the road.”

The company has a bar and restaurant on Main Street, in Slippery Rock, as well as a large production and canning facility just outside of town that is transformed Thursday-Saturday into a taproom where people can eat and drink among the brewing and canning equipment. The brewing company also revitalized the historic Harmony Inn, in Harmony, Pennsylvania, about 20 south of Slippery Rock.

Blossoming

The aquaponics system was put in February 2018. On top of giving them the space to exist, McCafferty donated part of the first system, the nutrient filament technique rack.

Aquaponics is the combination of aquaculture, raising fish for food, and hydroponics, growing plants without soil.

“Fish produce waste that feeds the plants in the rest of the system,” said Rachel McCullough, an employee of the program. “The plants cleanse the water for the fish.”

There are four employees of the program who worked their way up from students. McCullough has been there since the beginning. She started out learning all the basics about the system. Her second year she mentored other students. Now she’s doing research projects.

Right now, there are only six high school students in the program. In a normal year, the aquaponics area is packed with people. They had volunteers. They hosted an aquaponics club at the university. They’ve served nearly 100 participants. Things are scaled down because of the pandemic. The work of testing the water quality, feeding the fish, sewing seeds and harvesting and packaging vegetables, however, still needs to be done.

They grow a little bit of everything, Toth said. They always have staples like lettuces and herbs, but there’s also peppers, tomatoes, microgreens and flowers. They’ll try just about anything and take requests from the chefs they work with. North Country Brewing’s restaurants get first dibs on the produce.

“It’s every chef’s dream, really,” Daugherty said.

A second system was installed about a year ago. While the first one is tucked away in the warehouse, the second one has a prominent place above the bar in the taproom. North Country Brewing built a deck to house the fish tank, racks of plants and lights.

“They wanted to make sure people knew we were there,” Toth said.

Spreading out

The future involves a greenhouse and becoming self-sustaining. Arnhold, who retired in December 2019 but stayed on with the program, said their five-year plan called for a standalone greenhouse. It’s coming a little early. That’s an indication of how well things are going.

The greenhouse, if approved by the local municipality, will go up on Main Street, right by the North Country Brewing pub.

They started selling produce at the Slippery Rock farmers market this past summer. Extra produce also gets donated to the food cupboard in town.

Once they expand their production space via the greenhouse, they’d like to have a downtown storefront to sell their produce and other goods.

The program was started and funded by a variety of grants and partnerships. Arnhold said they applied for non-profit status recently and hope to be able to support themselves in the near future, without having to rely on grant funding.

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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